Favorite – And Safe – Place Dining

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The Future of Dining at Private Clubs

Clubs have made a lot of progress in their dining operations in the past decade. Once the domain of stuffy formality and accepting of “country club food”, they have invested millions revamping their facilities and hiring better talent. Most now recognize it is a critical tool for increasing member engagement and building community, not a profit center. Our surveys show improvement in member satisfaction, although it is a never-ending battle. Without a doubt, the food and beverage department (F&B) remains the most complex and challenging aspect of club operations.

Despite the advancements, there continues to exist a very large gap in perceptions between operators and members. In polls of club managers, we find that 89% believe members want their club to be one of their favorite places to dine and 71% think that they are meeting that expectation. On the other side of the ledger, fully 91% of members want their club to be one of their favorite places to dine, but only 44% consider that to be the case. Misperceptions, indeed.

The covid-19 pandemic layers on another challenge for clubs, but it also presents a tremendous opportunity. Prior to the shuttering of the economy back in March, the biggest issues in club F&B included finding and retaining staff and losing share to the ever-growing and ever-improving commercial market. The restaurant industry is now under tremendous threat and it is unlikely to recover for years. Just this week, famed New York restauranteur Danny Meyer, coincidently a keynote speaker at CMAA’s 2020 World Conference on Club Management, announced he will not venture back into the sit-down restaurant business until there is a vaccine for covid-19, something that even the most optimistic projections suggest is over a year away. He cited a litany of challenges, but it mostly boils down to unsustainable economics when you can use only 50% of your seats due to social distancing.

This is where clubs come in. They could be one of the first places members are willing to go when economies open – provided they are both safe and favored. This will require well-defined and rigorously enforced safety protocols along with reinvention. As most states begin to emerge from quarantine and enter the Phase 1 limited opening, it is time for club leaders to develop an action plan that both protects members and leverages this new opportunity.

The first order of business will be to develop a financially sustainable model and assure the safety side of things. The main elements of your opening checklist include:
  • Financial Sustainability: The remainder of 2020 will primarily feature a “members-only” approach with limited guest activity and few, if any, large events, such as weddings and holiday celebrations. In addition to lost revenue, the club will also need to account for additional costs of operations from controlling entries, taking temperatures, administering tests, providing personal protective gear to all staff, purchasing and more liberally using higher cost cleaning agents and extensive use of disposable containers, cutlery and the like.
  • Sanitize Your Clubhouse: Prepare your clubhouse through deep-cleaning, fogging and other sanitation procedures.
  • Protect and Train Your Staff: Equip your staff with personal protective gear and making sure they understand and commit to adhering to elevated sanitation protocols and no touching policies. The cleaning staff will be one of the most important parts of the team. Assure they are performing their duties in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations.
  • Create a Private Enclave: Entrances should be reduced, and manned, and secondary entries closed. Take temperatures, require reservations and registration.
  • Reposition for Social Distancing: Create your social distancing plan by removing or cordoning off sections, potentially moving your a la carte operation into your larger event spaces to take advantage of the room. Most managers are correctly focused on their staff because a secure and comfortable staff is the priority in creating a winning member experience. This would be a good time to look at the back-of-house areas in your club. These are generally tight spaces and many clubs have lived with unacceptable break and locker areas for far too long.
  • Communicate, Communicate, Communicate: Develop a comprehensive communications plan for members and staff and regularly refresh it. Keep the information new and interesting so it is understood and heeded. Video is proving to be a great tool for filling the insatiable desire for regular updates brought about by the covid crisis.

Once established, it will be critical to protect your club’s safe place status. Wherever you are operating, be extremely vigilant. It will be essential to strictly enforce all social distancing, reservations-only, no guests, family-only tables, and other health related rules. Clubs will need to ramp up the presence of management on the floor and at the door to head off problems. If you are in doubt that you can execute safely, err to the side of caution, and defer. This will undoubtedly involve saying no to members clamoring for a quick return to pre-covid operations. If there is a problem, fix it immediately at all costs. From observation, members have been very willing to follow the rules thus far, but just as with the shelter-in-place itself, frustration is likely to grow throughout the season, so you cannot let down your guard. As the old saying goes, “trust takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to rebuild”.

On the concept side, note that McMahon surveys ask members if the club is “one of their favorite places to dine”, not “only”, “best”, “gourmet” or another unreasonable superlative. Our research has proven members value comfort, convenience, consistency, friendliness, and easy more than over-the-top. Think upscale casual over formal, and in the irregular format that will be attainable and affordable during 2020, the staffing, linens and other extras associated with formal dining will not be in the budget anyway. This will be the year to refocus and reset your dining program to fit the more casual world and your abilities to execute. It should meet the test of quality, consistency, and value, for this and subsequent years. Menus will be limited with rotating chalkboard specials replacing overly ambitious ones  that are difficult to provide consistently.  On the facility side, we expect this will feature liberal use of outdoor areas, casual indoor spaces, cafes, markets, and coffee shops. To go food, while not yet recognized as a traditional business line for private clubs is not going away anytime soon.


What McMahon Thinks

The pandemic will remake and reshape the hospitality industry and clubs stand to be one of the beneficiaries. While they were prevented in the quarantine phase from serving as a place of refuge for their members, the Phase I opening of the economy will allow them to begin doing what they do best – providing a safe and secure social and recreational environment for their community of members. They serve a limited clientele and have a rules-based environment that separates them from what had been an increasingly “anything goes” society.  A return to a member-first focus that is both a “Safe and Favorite Place” will allow them to fill a vital and sustainable place in the hospitality world.

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About Frank Vain

Mr. Vain provides consulting and planning services to private clubs throughout North America. Through use of specialized services including membership surveys, strategic planning, operational analysis and facility long range planning, Frank assists club in developing individualized strategies for their unique situations. 

Mr. Vain joined McMahon Group in 1988 and has more than forty years of experience in the management and development of hospitality properties including country clubs, city athletic and dining clubs and residential communities. Frank is Past President of The Country Club of St. Albans, a 36-hole country club located in Missouri, and he is a former partner in Concord Sports Club, a 1,700 member family athletic club in St. Louis. Frank was elected to the Board of the National Club Association in 2011 and served as Chairman in 2019-20. 

Mr. Vain is a native of Philadelphia and graduate of Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He is a featured speaker at the annual Club Managers Association of America World Conference, National Club Association National and Regional Conferences, Major Golf Associations and a regional chapter meeting of club managers and leaders. 

Frank is a regular contributor to industry leading publications like Club Management, Club Director and BoardRoom. He was named the Gary Player Club Educator of the Year for 2012 and 2015 and received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2021 by BoardRoom. He is also a co-author of McMahon’s Club Trends, a recognized industry benchmark on the trends and issues affecting private clubs. 

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